Conversatio Divina

Part 8 of 16

Love Your Hands: Care for the Body as Sacred Task

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre

01.  Introduction

One of the most memorable characters in Toni Morrison’s Beloved is Baby Suggs, an old woman who has cared for scores of escaped slaves as they tried to make new lives for themselves on the “free” side of the Ohio River. Baby Suggs is “an unchurched preacher, one who visited pulpits and opened her great heart to those who could use it.”Toni Morrison, Beloved. (New York: Knopf, 1987), 87. Every Saturday she makes her way into the woods where she summons those who have suffered to join her in a ritual of recovery and gratitude. Her words to this beloved community go right to the heart of their pain: she calls them to take a long, close look at their bodies—abused and despised as they have been—and to love them.

“Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick ’em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ‘cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you!”Morrison, p. 88.

She continues her calling with a litany of body parts—backs, shoulders, neck, liver, eyes, feet, heart, lungs, and “lifegiving private parts,” all named as objects of rightful love. Her words are not a call to shallow self-affirmation, but a courageous insistence on having life abundantly, not by concession, but by defiantly claiming the gift of the body and the right to rejoice in it. Her words are fierce with conviction.

02.  Healing Touch, Healing Trust

The love she urges leads beyond gratitude to amazement and trust in the capacity to love and heal that is the natural endowment and rightful legacy of God’s embodied children. That amazement and trust lead to empowerment. And empowerment of the physically abused depends first not on ideas—or even on spiritual practices—but on restoration and reclamation of the physical body.

The wisdom of that order in the process of healing— from body to spirit—has been affirmed by numerous missionaries, including my own parents, who learned from Indian villagers suffering from tapeworm or malaria or leprosy that care of the body comes first. In spite of modern legislation, discarded humans still live as designated “untouchables.” Perhaps in no other act is the imitation of the incarnated Christ more exact and exacting than in reaching across barriers that deprive the “unclean” of physical contact. As Jesus touched lepers and “unclean” women, so we may find ourselves called to grasp the unwashed hand of a homeless person, cradle a wheezing baby who lives in the squalor of urban poverty, or share a meal with those whose diseases have been amplified by fear: AIDS, H1N1, or coughs and sores that come from poor sanitation.

Less immediate for most of us, but as urgent a matter for our collective attention, is care for the bodies of those who have (like Baby Suggs’s escaped slaves) borne systematic abuses we still tolerate, at least passively. Several years ago, I attended the inaugural meeting of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (—a gathering of people of faith concerned about torture and the ways we sanction or ignore it. Two of the speakers had been victims of torture in military prisons. Several were from organizations that seek out victims of extreme methods of military interrogation and of human trafficking and labor abuses. About twenty-seven million people worldwide live in slavery. They suffer a wide range of physical abuses: excessive cold, inadequate shelter and clothing, beatings, water boarding, malnourishment, and rape. They bear in their bodies the wages of collective sin that many of us find it hard to acknowledge, even as we wear, eat and profit from the fruits of exploited labor. To support the work of International Justice Mission ( or Not For Sale (, which rescue victims of systematic abuse, is to participate in ministries that recognize violation of bodies as assaults on souls and begin the work of healing with touch, food, and safe shelter.

03.  Healing Bodies, Healing Souls

Care for the body in any context is a sacred task, inseparable from care of the soul. Most parents know this from the moment they cradle a newborn. Adult children know this as they take on the care of aging or dying parents. Those who work in clinics, hospitals, convalescent care centers, and hospice facilities learn it in daily practice. For many of them, unsung and underpaid, such work is a way of grace. The best medical caregivers know this because they have witnessed how often physical healing involves profound trans-formations in attitude, self-understanding, intimate relationships, or faith. The psalmist knew this when he confidently identified the Lord as the one “who heals all your diseases” (Ps. 103:3).

Contemporary medical literature provides eloquent accounts of physical healing in which a key factor is attitude, imagination, or faith. The “clinical tales” of neurologist Oliver Sacks record remarkable life-changing adaptations made by patients who, with the help of an imaginative physician, find ways to renew lives lived in impaired bodies by paying careful, respectful attention to those bodies and retraining them. One of the most memorable of these tales tells a story of “The Lost Mariner,” whose brain disorder destroyed his memory. Fully aware only of the moment, he was literally lost in time, a condition that brought incapacitating side effects. Sacks, his doctor, asked the nuns who care for him whether, in fact, they think he has a soul.

Their answer was to summon the doctor to the chapel to watch the patient. He writes,

I was moved, profoundly moved and impressed, because I saw here an intensity and steadiness of attention and concentration that I had never seen before in him or conceived him capable of. I watched him kneel and take the Sacrament on his tongue, and could not doubt the fullness and totality of Communion, the perfect alignment of his spirit with the spirit of the Mass.Oliver Sacks, “The Lost Mariner,” The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (New York: Touchstone, 1970, 1985), 37.

In worship, the biomedical boundary between body and soul seemed to dissolve, or at least to give way to a different order of experience, observable even to a respectful secular observer. Neurology, psychology, and spirituality may not, he suggests, be as neatly separable as we’d like to think. Though the “Mariner’s” condition did not disappear, his doctor learned a lesson he offers simply and humbly at the end of this “tale”:

Perhaps there is a philosophical as well as a clinical lesson here: that in Korsakov’s, or dementia, or other such catastrophes, however great the organic damage and Humean dissolution, there remains the undiminished possibility of reintegration by art, by communion, by touching the human spirit: and this can be preserved in what seems at first a hopeless state of neurological devastation.Sacks, 39.

The hope Sacks expresses here goes far beyond simple optimism. Rather, he insists on the “undiminished” possibility of a kind of healing that doesn’t depend on full repair of neurological damage. That healing does not take place independently of the body, but in a context of radical reframing that understands patients’ compensations as acts of invention, courage, and grace.

Hospitals are often sites of spiritual epiphanies that come in the course of attending to ills of the flesh. In recent months our family spent many hours in hospitals, witnessing the slow decline of a very sick and much beloved child. I was humbled by the simple kindness of nurses and aides who emptied bedpans, bathed sweating bodies, measured urine output, and held those who couldn’t keep food down while they retched. Especially hospice workers, whose specific task is to care for the dying, impressed me with their tenderness as they turned inert patients, smoothed back their hair, held the hands of the comatose, and spoke words of encouragement into ears that might or might not still be hearing. Their attentions to the body affirmed the gift, the character, and the sacredness of this one very physical, very mortal life. That the life of the spirit continues, immortal, invisible, in another dimension seemed perfectly evident to us who framed those days of transition with our faith in the promise of resurrection.

Every death that touches us challenges us to reclaim the mystery whose truth we insist on in the creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” But both for us and for professional caregivers, the call of the moment before that mysterious passing over lay in close attention to the mortal life of one particular body. Touch and hearing are the last things to go, they told us repeatedly. Touch her. Speak to her.

As in sickness, so in health, attention to the body can ground and foster the life of the spirit. As Baby Suggs preaches, if we are to use our own bodies—our hands, our voices, our eyes, our feet—as instruments of love, we have to love them first. The volume of page space and film footage in popular media devoted to body “improvement” conditions us to focus almost obsessively on our bodies—not always, however, with the loving kindness they deserve. Even articles that urge us to lower our sugar intake, exercise for heart health, cut back on red meat, and practice deep breathing may neglect to inspire us with the life-giving reassurance that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”

04.  Wonder of Cells and Systems

The lovely book of that title and its sequel, In His Image, by Paul Brand and Philip Yancey, provide a much-needed faith foundation for care of the body by redirecting our attention from measurements to miracles. Both books are organized by body parts: cells, bone, skin, head, and blood, then motion and, ultimately, spirit frame a succession of reflections on the meaning and rich metaphorical implications of every aspect of bodily life. Both works emphasize how the complexity of every intricate body part manifests the complexity and intricacy of the Creator, who imagined and loved us into being. Like Oliver Sacks, Brand draws from a life in medicine—in the study and treatment of pain—for insight into the sources of bodily resilience, adaptiveness, and versatility. That insight comes from encounter: every patient is a teacher. Every individual claims and releases life in different ways and on different terms. The very facts that no medicine works for everyone, that typical cases have limited predictive value, and that every healing trajectory varies from the “norm” reassert the wonder in what we like to think of as scientific medicine.

In a chapter called “Cleansing,” for instance, Brand marvels at the precision and aptness of the idea of blood as a cleansing agent. That we are “washed in the blood of the Lamb” may seem a strange and grotesque metaphor to those who have washed bloodstains out of garments and changed bandages, but in a simple biology lesson Brand reminds us of the literal fact that blood cleanses, continually and efficiently, in ways we rely on for life itself. “No cell lies more than a hair’s breadth from a blood capillary,” he writes, “lest poisonous by-products pile up. . . . Through a basic chemical process of gas diffusion and transfer, individual red blood cells drifting along inside narrow capillaries simultaneously release their cargoes of fresh oxygen and absorb waste products . . . from these cells. The red cells then deliver the hazardous waste chemicals to organs that can dump them outside the body.”Philip Yancey and Paul Brand, In His Image (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), 75. In a similar way he explores other anatomical metaphors as a source of wisdom and revelation. How organs rely upon each other, how systems are interrelated, how hormones transfer messages, how contaminants are identified and released, all may deepen our appreciation of the rich and shocking metaphor Paul invoked to teach early Christians how to be the church: “You are the body of Christ.”

05.  In the Body Every Day

Most of us have somewhere heard the admonition to remember that we are “ Christ’s hands and feet” in the world. What better incentive is there to care for our bodies than to recognize them as instruments in God’s hands, to be trained to God’s purposes? If we listen with the ears of the heart to the language of aerobics instructors or Pilates trainers or coaches, we may find in them new invitations to spiritual reflection: they draw our attention to the physical “core” upon which all peripheral strength depends. They teach us to attend to our breath—that gift of life we receive like manna and receive again moment by moment. They teach us to pay attention to the subtle ways we may lose proper balance and alignment, and how to deepen the kinesthetic sense that enables us to come back to center.

Trainers also bring mind and body into dialogue—and occasionally they bring the language of the spirit to bear upon that good work. “When you stand, lift up your heart,” one trainer told me, “and when you walk, lead with it.” Another, a tennis coach, gave me a line that has helped me with much more than tennis: “When you’ve watched the ball, positioned yourself, and hit it, finish your swing with your whole body and enjoy the moment of release. You can’t control the outcome—just your stroke, so when that’s completed, let go completely. Then get ready for the next shot.” Paul’s words about “running the good race,” in addition to their spiritual implications, have wide application to the activities of life in this very physical world. Dancing, stretching, lifting, swimming, hitting with precision, passing to a teammate, coming back to center, resting in readiness—all have important implications for how we move through the days given us.

Even at a microscopic level the work of the body is a work of “infinite majesty,” beauty, and testimony to the orderly and intricate imagination of the Creator, for whom “good” covered a vast array of forms and processes. Biology students now have access to exquisite images in colorful three-dimensional animation that map and demonstrate such delicate processes as DNA replication, cell division, and enzyme reactions. From gross anatomy to processes visible only under an electron microscope, we may now witness the work of the body in ways that invoke not only scientific satisfaction or curiosity, but—even for the most clinical—amazement. As one biologist put it, “Every discovery unveils another mystery.”

The life of the body is paradoxical—vulnerable and resilient, fragile and sturdy, reliable and most surprising. We get the strength we need for this moment, not the next. If we train our bodies to the work we are given, we can rely on them to meet the requirements of the task at hand. So, too, in the life of the spirit. The wisdom we need is available and will not fail us. We don’t need to “take thought for the morrow.” We wake into the day equipped by the sleep that restores strength for that one day. With every breath, every slumber, every meal, we are renewed for a time. With every prayer uttered, breathed, remembered, we receive just the grace we need. Know that your body is animated by a force you cannot control, that even as you sleep, your cells do their intricate, quiet work, and you who have been fearfully and wonderfully made are rooted, grounded, and sustained in a love made visible in bodies, fearfully and wonderfully made, marvelous among God’s works, and worthy of thoughtful care and faithful stewardship.

06.  A Poem & Prayer

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre

This is my body
given for you.
Take and eat.

And this is your body
given to you.
Take and enter
the world on feet made
strong for the journey.

Breathe deep, and rest
when you are tired.
Honor the Sabbath.

Pluck the corn you need
and share it. Embrace
the sorrowful in arms
made strong by lifting
a faltering neighbor’s
load, or carrying a child.

You are equipped
for the work you are given.
Reach out. Dig deep.
Dance before the altar.
Receive what you need—
each bite, each breath.

Let your ears hear
and your eyes see.
Plunge your hands
into soil and running water

and lift them,
dirty and dripping,
to join the
great thanksgiving
of all who are made of dust
and water and
wind and light.


After thirty years of teaching, the last twelve at Westmont College, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre has moved to the Bay area to write, lead retreats, and continue teaching in new contexts. her books include three volumes of poetry on Dutch painters (Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh); Christ, My Companion: Meditations on the Prayer of St. Patrick; and most recently, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. She has written for Weavings, The Christian Century, Sojourners, Christianity Today, and Lectionary Homiletics. She has edited and authored other books on literature, literary history, and medical themes in literature. her teaching of writing is grounded in the conviction that writing can be a spiritual discipline, and, at its best, can leave the writer as well as the reader “surprised by joy.”